Suleiman al-Faransawi – A Life Shaped By Destiny

In the sparse, dry facts one comes across when searching through records of births, deaths, and the historical events in between, I often finds individuals whose characters and stories call out to be investigated.  This is the story of one such man, Soliman Pasha al-Faransawi.  Born Joseph Anthelme Sève on a spring day in 1788 in Lyons, France, to parents Anthelme Seve and Antoinette Juillet, he would embark on a journey that carried him from the battlefields of Europe to the deserts of Egypt.  Joseph Sève would be instrumental in forging a new military machine for Egypt that would contribute to the establishment of a new ruling dynasty.

Antoinette Juillet Seve, mother of Suleiman al-Faransawi
A Soldier in Napoleon’s Grande Armee

From an early age, Joseph was captivated by the call of the unknown.  His spirit of adventure led him to enlist in Napoleon Bonaparte‘s Grande Armée, where he became a powder monkey, a sailor, and a soldier who found himself in the middle of some of the most important events in world history.  He was at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and was wounded in the Battle of Leipzig in 1813. 

Joseph was probably part of Napoleon’s army in north-eastern France when he received news of his mother’s death in 1814.  She was 49 years old.  The following year 1815 saw Joseph at the Battle of Waterloo.

While the Battle of Waterloo signaled the end for Napoleon, it also portended the end of Joseph’s military career in France.  His final days in Napoleon’s Grande Armee were served as captain on the staff of Marshal of the Empire, Emmanuel de Grouchy, at the end of “Napoleon’s 100 Days.”   During his career in Napoleon’s army, Joseph Seve earned the highest French order of merit, both military and civil, the “Legion of Honor.”

Did Joseph go to Egypt with Napoleon’s Army?

I have found it written that Joseph was part of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt and that he was involved in compiling the historic “Description de l’Égypte (Description of Egypt).  However, if the date of Joseph’s birth is correct, he would have been 10 years old when Napoleon departed France for Egypt in 1798 and only 12 years old when Napoleon quietly left Egypt in 1801.

There is no reason to suspect Joseph’s date of birth of 1788 is incorrect because the births of his siblings are recorded as follows: a sister Jeanne born in 1789, a sister Louise born in 1790, and a brother Louis born in 1791.

A One Way Journey From France to Egypt

For courageous adventurers seeking excitement, when one door closes, another always opens.  Coincidentally, at the same time as Joseph was ending his French military career, at the age of 27, Muhammad Ali of Egypt was embarking on a new project – the creation of a new model army based on the European modern armies.

Having witnessed the military excellence of Napoleon’s troops in defeating the mamluks in Egypt, Muhammad Ali realized that if he was to make Egypt independent of the Ottoman Empire, he would need a bigger and better trained army than the mamluks had been.  In this endeavor, he sought out the best officers among the European armies to train his new recruits.

When Joseph Seve traveled to Egypt, and introduced himself to Muhammad Ali in 1815 he was aware of the growing strength of Muhammad Ali as ruler of Egypt and guessed at his intentions of escaping the restrictive control of the Ottoman Empire.  Joseph’s presence carried an air of soldierly strength and reliability, a quality that caught the attention of not only Muhammad Ali but also his son and commander of the army, Ibrahim Pasha.

Joseph soon figured out the differences between European customs and those of Egypt and Ottoman traditions.  Egypt was a country where talent was appreciated regardless of background or origins.  He converted to the Muslim faith and took the name “Suleiman”, and being French, it was natural for the Egyptians to individualize that famous name by adding the tag “al-Faransawi” (“the French”).

Establishing Muhammad Ali’s Model Army – forerunner of today’s Egyptian army.

Joseph Seve, from hereon called Suleiman al-Faransawi, was sent to Aswan to establish and command a training camp for slaves brought from the Sudan as infantry.  This was not a great success due, in part, to diseases carried by the Sudanese.  To solve this problem, Muhammad Ali conscripted Egyptian peasants for training, which eventually made him unpopular among the masses for a time as the peasants were conscripted indefinitely.

Suleiman was also charged with setting up in Aswan a military academy for training members of the Muhammad Ali family and the educated sons of the nobility as officers in the new army.   By late 1818, he had been joined by many more European officers in Aswan, and several more training camps were set up around Egypt over the next five years.  The growth and modernization of the Egyptian Army did not go unnoticed by either the European powers or the Ottoman Sultans.

Personal Sorrows of Muhammad Ali

Over the years, Suleiman witnessed the sorrows of Muhammad Ali in the deaths of numerous wives, concubines, and children—too numerous to mention here as this is Suleiman’s story, not Muhammad Ali’s.  Most notable was the death in 1824 of Muhammad Ali’s first love, first wife, consort, and mother of many of his children, Amina Hanim of Nusratli.

Greek War of Independence

By 1824, when the Egyptian army marched into Greece under an agreement reached with the Ottoman Sultan Mahmoud II to put down the revolution there, Suleiman had become second in command to Ibrahim Pasha, Muhammad Ali’s son and successor.

Because the merits of the Greek revolt against the Ottomans had been gaining ground in Europe in the months preceding the Egyptian entry to the conflict, some of Muhammad Ali’s European training officers either left his service or refused to go to Greece, where many of their compatriots from Napoleon’s Grande Armee were now fighting on one side or the other.

This experience brought home to Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim Pasha, not only the fickleness of the European governments but also the foreigners in their service, some of whom attempted to play both sides of the conflict.

Those who remained loyal were recognised for the true diamonds that they were, Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi in particular.  The fate of Suleiman’s descendants would, for centuries to come, be entwined with those of the Muhammad Ali dynasty.   As Ibrahim Pasha pushed forward at the head of the campaign, he left Suleiman Pasha to hold and control the Peloponnese.

The intervention of Great Britain, France, Russia, and Prussia prevented the Egyptian army from gaining more control in and around Greece; this type of intervention by European and Russian powers became a regular occurrence both on the battlefields and politically whenever it appeared that Egypt might get too powerful for them on the world stage.  This game of interference did not just apply to Egypt but also, historically, to the Ottoman Empire since its early days.

Statue of Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi at the Military Museum in Cairo
Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi Finds Himself a Wife

By the close of 1825, Ibrahim Pasha’s new, model Egyptian army had brought back numerous slaves to Egypt.  It’s likely from this group that Suleiman al-Faransawi encountered his wife, Maria Mariam Hanem Elessi (hanem signifying lady).  Over the next few years, they were blessed with four children: three daughters, Nazly, Asmaa, and Zuhra, as well as a son, Muhammad Bey al-Mahdi.  Maria was approximately 22 years junior to Suleiman.

In 1832 Anthelme Seve, the father of Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi passed away, aged 78 years.  In the same year he witnessed the sorrow of Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim Pasha at the death of Ibrahim’s 9 year old daughter, Fatima Ibrahim.

“Conquer of Nezib, the Terror of Constantinople”

Jumping forward a few years to that fateful day of June 24, 1839, when, under the command of Ibrahim Pasha, Suleiman al-Faransawi earned his title “conqueror of Nezib, the terror of Constantinople” in the Battle of Nezib (Nizip) when the Egyptian Army defeated the Ottoman army,  This time it was the Ottoman Empire that was saved from further defeat at the hands of Muhammad Ali by another intervention of the European countries of Great Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia.

The Ottoman defeat led to the signing of an agreement in 1841 by Sultan Abdulmecid I, appointing Muhammad Ali as the hereditary governor of Egypt.   It was becoming very clear to all by now that Muhammad Ali was merely giving lip service to the Ottoman Empire., and his military might was a force, in its own right, to be reckoned with.

“I loved three men in my whole life: my father, Napoleon, and Muhammad Ali.”

It is said that a favorite quote associated with Suleiman Pasha was “I loved three men in my whole life: my father, Napoleon, and Muhammad Ali.”   It must have greatly pained him in the following years to witness the declining cognitive health of Muhammad Ali and that of Ibrahim Pasha from rheumatism and tuberculosis.

The ailing Ibrahim Pasha was declared ruler due to Muhammad Ali’s senility in July 1848 but died just four months later on November 10.  Muhammad Ali died the following year, on August 2, 1849, in Alexandria, without ever knowing that his son, Ibrahim, had predeceased him.

Suleiman then witnessed the rulership of their heir, Abbas I who was Muhammad Ali’s grandson, and must have despaired of the legacy of Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim Pasha on hearing the rumors of his misdeeds.  Abbas I was murdered by two servants on July 13, 1854, and Suleiman Pasha witnessed the succession of Muhammad Ali’s fourth son, Said Pasha I of Egypt, to the throne.

Over the years Suleiman had witnessed the sorrows of Muhammad Ali and Ibrahim Pasha on the deaths of Ibrahim’s children:  5 year old Muhammad Ibrahim in 1819, Amina in 1829,  and then in 1858 the tragic death of his 32 year old son Ahmed Rifaat Ibraham, who was killed when the train he was travelling in fell off the car float that was transporting it across the river.

A Life Well Lived and Leaving an Enduring Legacy

It’s not clear exactly when Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi retired to his palace on the Nile or when his wife died, but by the time he passed away himself, the title “the most powerful man in Egypt” had been added to that of “the conqueror of Nezib, the terror of Constantinople.”

We don’t know whether or not Suleiman al-Faransawi lived to see the birth of any of his grandchildren, but we know from the surnames of their husbands and wives that all his children and grandchildren were closely connected to the family of Muhammad Ali.  Those stories are for another day.  However we will cover the most well k here now:

  • The most famous of these connections would be the marriage of his great granddaughter, Nazli Sabry, to King Ahmed Fouad I of Egypt, Muhammad Ali’s great grandson, on May 24, 1919.  Nazli inherited all of her great-grandfather’s love of freedom and desire for travel but destiny was to take her in the opposite direction, for all intents and purposes, to the confines of the king’s harem.
  • Suleiman’s granddaughter, Gulsun, married Muharrim Chahin and gave birth to one son and three daughters.
    • Muharrim was also married to Princess Djamila Fazila Ismail.
    • Princess Djamila was the great-granddaughter of Muhammad Ali, the granddaughter of Ibrahim Pasha, and the daughter of Ismail Khedive.  It’s not clear if she died prior to the marriage, divorced Muharrim or Gulsun became a second wife.  I am inclined to think she died, as I am wondering if a royal princess by birth would have allowed a second wife.  They didn’t allow it in the Ottoman dynasty, so I doubt they did in the Muhammad Ali dynasty.  The princess died in 1896 at the age of 27, and Gulsun would have been 33 at that time.
    • Muharrim and Princess Djamila had one son, who appears to have died in infancy.
    • Princess Djamila had been married twice prior to marrying Muharrim;
      1. to Yakub Zosh and
      2. to Ahmed Kamal Refaat IBRAHIM, whom she divorced.  Ahmed Kamal Rifaat IBRAHIM was the great-grandson of Muhammad Ali, the grandson of Ibrahim Pasha, and the son of the unfortunate Ahmed Rifaat.
Princess Djamila Fazila Ismail

Suleiman Pasha al-Faransawi died in Cairo on 12 March 1860, of rheumatic fever at the age of 72.  He was laid to rest in his own magnificent mausoleum in Old Cairo next to his wife’s tomb.

Suleiman al-Faransawi’s story reminds us that within the pages of history lies a treasury of individuals’ untold stories that can illuminate and enrich our knowledge of the historical times in which they lived.  It stands as an example of how a spirit of adventure, courage, and unwavering loyalty can weave a long and inextricable web of intimacy between people of different countries, cultures, and classes through time.  Through personal sorrows, shared joys, battles, alliances, and the rise of a modern nation, his legacy of personal loyalty and the reshaping of e model of Muhammad Ali’s modern army remains a testament to the enduring spirit that is Egypt.

Tomb of Suleiman al-Faransawi in Old Cairo, now restored and preserved.